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Chilean Miners: NASA to the Rescue

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(COPIAPO, Chile) -- The vastness of space is very different from the claustrophobic darkness of a Chilean mine.  But when 33 men became trapped in the earth, Chile's government asked for help from NASA, an organization whose specialty is leaving the earth.

The Chile experience has been a ray of light for NASA.  While the agency has expertise that helped in the mining drama, for instance, how to take care of people in confined places, its primary mission has been muddled.  It's been the subject of acrimonious debate between the Obama administration and members of Congress.

The space agency provided Chile with two doctors, a psychologist and a team of engineers who provided advice on how to design the miners' escape capsule, the cramped tube, nicknamed Phoenix, that was used to pull the men, one by one, from the ground.

Clinton Cragg, a former Navy submarine commander who now heads a NASA troubleshooting team, went to the mine site, returned to NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, and assembled a team to draw up safety guidelines for Phoenix.

"You try to think of everything you can think of that can go wrong, and you try to put something in the design to mitigate or deal with that," he said in an interview with ABC News.

"There's been a certain amount of incredulity: why would NASA be involved in a mine accident?" said Roger Launius, the agency's former chief historian, who now is a senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. "But as an agency with broad experience, it makes sense that they'd be asked to help out."

Copyright 2010 ABC News Radio

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